By John Fleming
NAPLES, Fla. – Hannah Lash is a rarity: a harpist who is also a composer. Plenty of composer-pianists and composer-violinists have put their stamp on classical music, but those who play the harp and compose have been few and far between.
So it was a notable occasion when Lash’s Double Concerto for piano, harp, and orchestra was given its world premiere by the Naples Philharmonic on Nov. 14. Pianist Jeremy Denk and the composer-harpist were the soloists, with Arvo Volmer conducting in Hayes Hall of the Artis-Naples arts complex.
Lash, who is on the faculty of the Yale School of Music, is in the midst of a remarkably prolific run of new works. She has had several premieres already this season, including her chamber opera Desire in New York in October. Her Peril of Dreams, a big work for two harps and orchestra (in which she will be one of the soloists), is scheduled for debut by the Seattle Symphony in April 2020.
As a madcap footnote to the Double Concerto premiere: Lash performed on a harp once owned by Harpo Marx. “I have been having an amazing time playing on this instrument,” she told me in an interview. “It has been really wild. For a harpist to play Harpo’s harp is quite a thing.”
The carved-maple, gold-gilded harp, made by the Lyon & Healy company in the 1920s, was played by Harpo in A Night at the Opera and other movies. Loaned to Lash by its current owner, Dickie Fleisher, principal harpist of the Naples Philharmonic and a collector of harps, Harpo’s harp is much the same as Lash’s own, newer instrument. For the premiere, she restrung the borrowed harp with her preferred gut strings, which can be tricky to keep in tune in Florida’s humidity.
Lash and Denk have worked together before – her piano concerto In Pursuit of Flying was written for him and premiered by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2018 – and they meshed beautifully in the single-movement Double Concerto, which ran about 12 minutes. As solo instruments, piano and harp can be a mismatch, with the piano ever at risk of overpowering the harp, but the balance between the pair was fine. As for any potential problem with gut strings, Lash’s pitch was impeccable.
The soloists carried the concerto, with the orchestra not making an appearance until eight pages into the score; thereafter the orchestra mainly served to supply a multi-colored texture against which a series of mercurial exchanges between harp and piano unspooled – at one point brittle and abrupt (piano), at another soulful and shimmering (harp). A recurring pattern consisted of athletic, arpeggiated runs and chords up and down the piano keyboard and across the harp strings, but with each voice set slightly off the beat from the other. It was like a conversation in which friends interrupt and speak over each other, repeat and backtrack and obfuscate in their talking together, but still manage to find a fond groove, as if the prickly, changeable relationships in a Sondheim musical were given a brisk avant-garde spin.
Denk and Lash were an appealing duo, with the pianist turning to look over his shoulder from time to time to trade a quick glance to communicate with the harpist. They needed every last bit of their bravura techniques to keep the performance moving along at a breathless pace. The concerto could perhaps benefit from not being quite so rapidly dashed off as it was in this first performance, allowing the listener a chance to savor the sonic scenery a little.
Lash has three other published concertos – two for harp plus the piano concerto written for Denk. In a program note and remarks to me, she said that bringing a fresh way of thinking to the concerto form was of interest to her, both to build upon its rich tradition but also to subvert it. Thus, her Double Concerto, the first such work for harp and piano as far as she knows. Certainly her unlikely pairing of the dynamically clashing instruments is indeed subversive, but for all its ingenuity and craft in the deployment of jazz-like harmonies and passages that repeat and return unpredictably, the work’s brainy conception tended to undercut the passionate performance. The harp and piano combination worked, but the format in which it played out seemed overly thought out.
The Double Concerto was a 2016 commission by the League of American Orchestras’ Women Composers Readings and Commissions program, in partnership with the American Composers Orchestra and supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation.
After polite applause for the Double Concerto, Denk went straight into Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. He handled the shift in roles – from the witty, argumentative but ultimately supportive partner in Lash’s modern dialogue to the heroic protagonist of Beethoven’s C minor epic – with consummate virtuosity. He was deeply impressive in the dramatic contrasts that come amid the first movement’s huge, technically demanding cadenza; in the quiet, heart-stopping moment between piano and timpani in the coda; and then, at the opening of the Largo, in his gentle, offhandedly brilliant fingering.
In an encore, Denk brought down the house with his sensational boogie-woogie account of Wagner’s Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannhauser, modeled on YouTube videos of the great Harlem stride pianist Donald Lambert (1904-62), who was famous for his fleet, unerring left hand.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances took up the second half of the concert, and Volmer led a polished performance, overflowing with a silken string sound that showed off Hayes Hall’s new orchestra shell to excellent acoustical effect.
John Fleming is president of the Music Critics Association of North America. He writes for Classical Voice North America, Musical America, Opera, and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times.